Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Road Trip: The Western Half

Continued from Part I...

Day 6: Chicago, IL to Brandon, SD

We left Holler's house early and headed over to Stefan's for a big home-cooked breakfast. This was fortunate, because we were headed to the Wisconsin State Fair, and if we had arrived hungry we probably would have eaten some of the most disgusting foods on the planet. After the drive, during which the only noteworthy event was that the A/C appeared to die and scared all of us, only to come back to life moments later, we got out to explore the fairgrounds. State fairs are some of the most interesting collections of people and Americana that you'll ever see, and Wisconsin totally lived up to if not exceeded every stereotype you could think of. If you're looking for a place with massive numbers of obese people in overalls, with VERY serious livestock competitions, with entire pavilions devoted to one food item (seriously, an entire warehouse-sized building selling only cream puffs), a place with three different varieties of pig racing, with fried anything, a place where everyone looks like they belong on People of Wal-Mart, look no further than the Wisconsin State Fair. We left after about three hours, which makes sense because three hours is about the most time you want to spend in a zoo--any longer, and you become one of the animals.

To say our itinerary for the first two days was ambitious would be like saying Arnold Schwarzenegger is "in shape." We covered 1330 miles in the first 48 hours after Chicago, and a lot of those miles came after the fair, when we drove across the entire state of Minnesota. We stopped for the first of many burger dinners at a place in Rochester, MN, a city whose main attraction is the Mayo Clinic. The restaurant was rated highly on Yelp, an app on Stefan's iPhone that we used to search for places to eat in most every city. It never led us astray--the place in Rochester had several unique kinds of burger, including one where the cheese was inserted into the patty and melted as the burger cooked. It was a good little pit stop, and after that we hit the road and wound up spending the first night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We had booked a hotel there earlier in the day, which was lucky because we rolled into town around 1 AM and were completely exhausted.

Day 7: Sioux Falls, SD to Denver, CO

On this day, I think I discovered my own limit of how long I can remain in a moving vehicle. To give you an idea of just how much driving we did, it was on this day that we started calling my car "Stad," short for Amistad. We woke up early and took I-90 across the entire state of South Dakota, which is just one of the most devastatingly boring drives you'll ever encounter. The most interesting thing about that state is the roadside advertising, which starts about 200 miles from any particular attraction. Instead of using billboards, a lot of companies just paint their ad on the side of an 18-wheeler trailer and abandon it in a field next to the road. Seriously, the best part of South Dakota was that we found a store that sold sweet stickers and we started amassing a sticker collection on the roof carrier. Actually, I take it back--the sticker collection started at the Wisconsin State Fair, when I got a free sticker from a radio station called The Hog (classic rock).

From Road Trip

The Badlands, one of the only good things about South Dakota.

When I hate on South Dakota, I'm really only hating on 95% of the state though, because the southwestern 5% is gorgeous. We went to the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, which are both beautiful in their own way. The Badlands is obviously a place of incredible natural beauty, whereas Rushmore is more of a human achievement and a work of art. We saw them both within a span of 4 hours, and then kept on driving all the way down through Wyoming to Denver, where we also arrived at 1 AM. Wyoming is so rural it makes South Dakota look like New York City. You can do whatever you want there just because there are so few people around. We drove past a town that had a population of exactly 1, according to the roadside sign. However, Wyoming is actually a beautiful state, especially at sunset. I think these photos say it better than I can:

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

Anyway, we arrived in Denver way late and crashed with John's cousin, who was awesome for hosting us even though we only saw her for about 15 minutes total. In two days, we had covered almost half of the distance from Chicago, which was somewhat insane but also gave us more time to enjoy the next few days.

Day 8: Denver, CO to Moab, UT

Denver was the first time we could really sleep in on the entire trip, so we did just that. After waking up and actually showering and getting dressed properly for the first time in a couple days, we walked around downtown Denver for a little while. The city is pretty cool because it has a giant pedestrian mall that is completely closed off to all traffic except for city buses which take you up and down the mall for free. The state capitol is also right at the end of this street, and when we were there they had an outdoor market set up on a square between city hall and the capitol. There were also (randomly) some ping pong tables out there sponsored by ESPN, so Stefan and I played a game of ping pong with an amazing backdrop:

After spending a couple hours in downtown, we took a short drive to Golden to tour the headquarters of the Coors Brewing Company. This is probably the closest I will come to understanding how Muslims feel at Mecca, because in my opinion Coors Light is one of the best cost-effective beers in the world (I think I've referred to it earlier on this blog as the "Cadillac of College Beer," and I stand by that statement). As most connoisseurs know, Coors is brewed with water fresh from the Rockies, which explains why each beer has that cold, fresh, Rocky Mountain taste. As you might imagine, most of the tour was this kind of propaganda, but it did teach us a little about the beermaking process, too.

After a quick stop at a local bar so Stefan and Holler could enjoy some $1 pints of Coors, we started our cross-Rockies journey that afternoon (with me behind the wheel). This segment turned out to be pretty eventful, because we had no idea just how overloaded the car really was. Going up hills of 7% grade or more, we had a hard time keeping up with 18-wheelers. There were extended stretches where the most we could do on an interstate highway was 25-35 mph. Stad, the little engine that could if there ever was one, eventually made it over the hills and to the Glenwood Canyon portion of I-70, which was absolutely unreal. Part of the cool thing about this trip was that we got to drive by or across a lot of man-made wonders, the kind of stuff that I used to only see on Modern Marvels (seriously, the History Channel is awesome), and that was definitely the case with Glenwood Canyon. I was too busy trying to navigate all the turns to take pictures, but Stefan and Holler got some good ones that I'll try to link to soon.

The day ended well, too, because we were able to find a youth hostel in Moab with a private 3-person room that we rented for $30/night total. This is actually a good time to discuss our lodging arrangements: we originally planned to stay exclusively at Holiday Inns, because Stefan had stayed in one all summer and accumulated a ton of rewards points. However, the reason Stefan was able to do that was because he was working for Allstate and they were paying for his housing. At the end of the summer, Allstate claimed that they deserved the rewards points, not Stefan. Besides causing us to curse every time we saw a Holiday Inn that we could no longer afford to stay at, this affected our trip in several ways. We wound up staying in budget places that I would argue gave the trip more character than if we had just stayed in a Holiday Inn all the time. For example, in Vegas, we got a room at a Motel 6 right across from the MGM Grand (and next door to Hooters). We would have missed out on this if we hadn't gotten screwed over by Holiday Inn and Allstate, so I guess it was actually a blessing in disguise. So, to summarize, when we found a hostel in Moab for really cheap it came with a sense of accomplishment that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

Day 9: Moab, UT to Torrey, UT

This day was mainly just to tour Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. I could describe how sweet they were, or I could just show you pictures:

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

Day 10: Torrey, UT to Prescott, AZ

Another day of parks; this time, the main attraction was the Grand Canyon:

As we were leaving the canyon, we saw one of the craziest things I think I'll ever see. A hailstorm hit us while we were at a gas station, so we had to wait it out (apparently it's normal for hailstorms to hit in the middle of August). It passed, but we caught up to it again as we were driving around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. However, the storm clouds were really only on one side of the road--on the other side, it was sunny and there was a giant, low-lying rainbow. Splitting the two images was the road we were driving on, which extended forever in front of the car through the desert. If I had a wide-angle lens, I would've stopped and tried to capture it all, but I'm not about to forget it either. It was the kind of scene that I only thought was possible in Photoshop, but it was actually there in reality. Crazy stuff.

That night, we met up with my high school buddy and teammate Alex Yates, who lives in Prescott with his fiance. He showed us around town for a bit and we had a lot of quality catching-up time. It was good to see him, but it was also a little bit of a wake-up call for me to see him with a house, a fiance, a steady job, and all of the other little things that constitute an adult life. I guess I'll have to get on that ASAP.

Day 11: Prescott, AZ to Las Vegas, NV

My Vegas gambling exploits warrant a separate post, which I'll put up tomorrow. But on the way there, we stopped to see the Hoover Dam, another thing that fit under my "Modern Marvels" category. Security was really tight along the dam and traffic was pretty heavy, so it took a while to cross. We stopped and explored for a little bit, but didn't have the time or the money to take a tour. Still, we didn't need one to appreciate the magnitude of the structure. I'll always have a healthy amount of respect for whoever saw the Colorado and thought, "Hey, we can tame this river," or the guy who saw an exposed piece of rock in South Dakota and envisioned Mt. Rushmore. Part of the reason people keep coming to these places is because you can't really understand them until you've seen them in real life, and I'm glad we were able to fit the Hoover Dam into the schedule. They're opening a new bridge to bypass the road over the dam in the fall--traffic was a problem, but it's mainly for security reasons I think--so my car will be one of the last to pass over the dam. That's pretty cool to think about.

Day 12: Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, CA

The last day involved us pulling a Katy Perry and waking up in Vegas. I counted my money from the last night about 3 times just to make sure that I wasn't dreaming the whole time. Still full from the Hooters buffet (God, I hope I never have to write that sentence again), we checked out of the hotel at 11 and drove all the way to the Pacific Ocean to stay with my friend Alex Sigoloff. His mom has connections, and hooked us up with 4 free tickets to a Dodgers game about 10 rows behind first base--the good luck continues. After that, we went to a famous LA restaurant called the Apple Pan, whose entire business model is based on "doing simple things excellently" (that's their motto, I think). Anyway, they only serve basic American food but use the highest-quality ingredients and recipes. It was so absurdly good that I may consider driving into LA just to go back.

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